Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Early Fall is Golden


It's been gradual, but we are slowly moving into the fall season. We are still experiencing dry, hot (as in 90 degree) days, but mornings are comfortably cooler and days are getting shorter.

skipper butterfly on helianthus angustifolius

This has become my favorite season in nature. Summer blooms have mostly faded, bequeathing the garden to the next wave of blooms. Insect activity is at its pinnacle with a profusion of bees, butterflies and beneficial insects.  Late September, early October is a golden time.

Solidago rugosa 'fireworks'

Goldenrods come ablaze on pollinator hill. The tiny flowers provide an abundant supply of nectar for bees, wasps and butterflies.

They even liven up the fluffy dwarf joe pye weed blooms that have gone to seed, giving this old/new combo more star power in the landscape.

Eupatorium dubium with solidago

Maryland Goldenaster is a strong bloomer, from late September through November. The bold yellow blooms are especially loved by bees and butterflies.

Chrysopsis mariana paired with Muhlenbergia capillaris

The garden (writing) spiders even add a touch of gold dangling in their webs amid the foliage.

The black swallowtail caterpillars feasting on the bronze fennel in the kitchen garden add a splash of yellow to the fading golden blooms of the fennel.

But it is the bright, bold yellow of the swamp sunflowers that are most eye catching. Standing tall, these blooms can be seen from the road and wave at the passerby.

The colorful flower flies that frequent the blooms all but blend in with the florets. They are significant pollinators in gardens calling on a wide range of blooms. Look closely, as they mimic bees, but unlike bees, they often hover in front of the flowers.

Once pollination services have been rendered by bees, butterflies, flies and diurnal moths, these blooms will provide seed for the many song birds who reside here.

The fall garden is one of my greatest pleasures. The transition from summer to fall is gentle and glorious. This is an important time to continue to nurture all the pollinators and other insects in the garden by providing nectar sustenance as they prepare for hibernation or migration.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Not So Common Milkweed (in Georgia anyway)

Travels this summer took me to Michigan and Minnesota. I always know I've arrived in the Midwest when I begin seeing common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) all along the roadside. Once upon a time it grew humbly everywhere, but in many agricultural areas it has mostly vanished from the landscape. I have yet to find it growing plentifully in North Georgia. Several times I've attempted to grow it in our home garden with limited success.

Common milkweed growing along side a soybean field
But in my sister's Michigan garden it grows abundantly. Here it finds a home between rocks, at the edge of the farmer's field who resides in the adjacent property, along the walking paths and in the pastures and meadows. This is a very good thing because areas along the Monarchs' migration route are in dire need of more milkweed. It is interesting to note that common milkweed is one of the few native prairie plants that can survive the annual disturbances that occurs when farmer's prepare their corn and soybean fields.

Gorgeous common milkweed standing tall

Monarchs are certainly the most recognized guest on milkweed, but there are many other insects that rely sole on milkweed plants for survival. The red milkweed beetle is a member of the long horned beetle family and is host specific to common milkweed, where its grubs feed on the roots and stem of the milkweed plant and overwinter in the stems while the adults feed on the foliage and flowers.

red milkweed beetles on milkweed

Monarch butterflies are not the only butterfly to enjoy the sweet nectar from these fragrant blooms. Many other species of butterflies are found visiting the blooms that often drupe under their own weight.

Swallowtail and red milkweed beetle on common milkweed

It is also popular with both long and short-tongued beetles, wasps, flies, and moths. My sister and BIL have an amazing apiary and many of the honey bees happily visit the aromatic blooms during the summer months.

honey bees on milkweed blooms

bumble bee on common milkweed flowers

Ants were scrambling around several plants which were teeming with aphids. These honey ants and aphids have a mutual relationship were the ants protect the aphids from predators in exchange for feeding on the sugary honeydew the aphids secrete.

When this milkweed is not in bloom it fades into the greenery that litters the Michigan roadsides still providing food for the monarch larva and milkweed beetle. But, it makes me wonder why Midwestern states have more success growing common milkweed than the Southeastern states. Maybe they are blessed with more loamy soil, which this milkweed species prefers, or perhaps they are more mindful about spraying herbicides and implementing appropriate mowing schedules. All steps that help conserve native vegetation and the insects they support. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

More Than A Hummingbird Feeder

During the hot, sultry days of summer, when most of us are melting from the heat, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are full of energy, racing around as if it were the Indy 500. I often hear them screech to a halt and reverse course, chasing one another wildly from one end of the garden to the other. The hummers stop to refuel at many of the plants that have been included in our garden design specifically for them. However, we also hang several feeders so we can enjoy watching them from various vantage points around the garden.

The tray style feeders are a favorite with the hummers plus they are easy to clean, which is a bonus. The baby hummers have fledged their nests by this time, so the numbers in our garden have increased over the past few weeks. The young hummers are infrequent visitors to the feeders as the males expend extraordinary energy defending their nectar sources. They are greedy gents not willing to sharing with fellow hummers. Placing multiple feeders out of sight of one another gives the females and juveniles a better chance of getting to the feeders.

These feeders are not only used by hummingbirds. Several species of small songbirds such as chickadees, goldfinches, warblers, and house finches are known to appreciate a sweet sip. Some even use the ant moat as their personal water hole.

Carolina chickadee drinking from hummingbird feeder

Several species of butterflies also appreciate the convenience of these feeders. I mostly observe butterflies here, who are not traditional nectar feeders, like the red spotted purple butterfly, who prefers sap, rotting fruit, and carrion (to each their own!). 

Red-spotted purple butterfly

cloudless sulphur butterfly
Take a look at your hummingbird feeders. Are they doing double duty too? You may be surprised to discover a multiplicity of visitors.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Garden Study: Insects' Favorite Blooms

Summer is peak insect season and as a habitat gardener, observing how the pollinators use our garden is important in gaining insight into how well the native plants are working in our ecosystem. Part of this process is documenting which blooms are being visited by pollinators over the course of the day/month/season.

While some plants have a special relationship with one pollinator, other plants are very popular with a wide variety of insects.  Last summer, I highlighted a few of the plants that attract many beneficial pollinators to our garden, including devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). (Read: Not All Plants Are Created Equally ) Here are a few more plants that are invaluable to pollinators in our garden.

Not all plants that attract pollinators grow in the sun. Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a key nectar source in the shadier parts of our garden. Blooms are covered with several species of bees and beetles, who dine amicably on this open buffet. Bumblebees maneuver themselves around the creamy white flowers so rapidly it's difficult to capture a decent photo.

Swallowtail butterflies are constant visitors, morning to dusk, to the summer blooming bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) flowers. Another shade loving shrub, this is one of three species growing in our garden. Others include red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), one of the best plants at attracting hummingbirds and one of the first red tubular shaped flowers of the season, and painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica), also an early spring bloomer with white tubular blooms.

Bottlebrush buckeye also attracts bumblebees, wasps and hummingbirds. Bees and wasps hang onto the wand-like panicles to reach into the trumpet to retrieve nectar.

Watching the insects moving around the flower as they dangle and swing through the inflorescence is like watching 'American Ninja Warrior' competition for pollinators.

blue mud dauber

Narrow-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) flowers are alive with dancing pollinators. A spectacular variety of bees, butterflies, wasps and moths call on the showy blooms that have a long bloom period throughout the summer.

Variegated fritillary butterfly and bumblebee
Variegated fritillary and Pearl Crescent butterflies
Bumblebee hugging mountain mint bloom

Pearl Crescent butterfly
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a popular milkweed choice, is an ecosystem unto itself. I've written about this milkweed previously (Read: Got Milkweed) but would be remiss if I didn't include it here because it is covered with bees and butterflies throughout the summer season.

Monarchs butterflies usually visit our garden during their Spring and Fall migration, but milkweed blooms provide nectar to other pollinators during the summer months and also serve as a host plant for the milkweed tussock moth and food source for milkweed bugs.

With more homeowners wanting to support monarchs the demand for milkweed plants has increased dramatically, hence more and more nurseries have it available. This is good news for the monarchs and other beneficial pollinators; however, it is important to know if the plants you are purchasing have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids, a systemic chemical that is distributed through all parts of the plant including the pollen and nectar. The intention is to prevent infestation of sucking and chewing 'pests' such as white flies, emerald ash borer, and Japanese beetles, but it is also detrimental to important pollinators who visit the plant's blooms seeking nectar. If you grow treated plants in your garden you will be doing more harm than good to the pollinator populations.

So, where is the pollinator party in your garden? Have you ever considered observing the diversity of pollinators that visit the plants in your garden? Try comparing native plants versus ornamental plants or straight species versus hybrids and discover what are the hardest working plants in your garden. Then plant more of them!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Celebrating Pollinators~The Keystone of our Gardens

Ah, the summer heat and humidity has arrived, making it a real challenge to do any serious gardening. Watering. Weeding. Walking. the garden is about all that gets done on these sweltering days. I prefer to get out at dawn about the time the wren sings his first song. This gives me a few hours to complete the necessary garden chores before I melt away. But, no matter how early I get outside the bumblebees and hummingbirds are already hurrying about their day with some serious oomph. The full service pollinator buffet that is our garden is open.

This week is National Pollinator Week. A week to celebrate all pollinators and their vital role in our ecosystems. This year I decided to share some of our native plants and native hybrids that attract and support bees, butterflies, beetles, flies, birds, moths, and ants in our garden.

Blanket flower, butterfly weed, hypericum, golden alexander,  passiflora incarnata
The photo above is our front walk. We are south facing and this area gets lots of sun plus heat off the brick of the house. Despite the harsh conditions these plants thrive here providing nectar sources, host plants and shelter for bees and butterflies. I often see lizards and anoles skulking about. Birds love to perch in the black locust 'twisty baby' before descending to the ground to pick up an insect to feed their young.

As our garden has evolved I have endeavored to plant communities that are not only appealing to the eye but service the pollinators so (1) they don't have to travel to another garden seeking nectar sources and (2) provide bloom sequences to keep them in our garden throughout the year.

Here is a hot color combo that makes an impact and attracts bees and butterflies. Blanket flowers are low growing and easy for smaller butterflies and bees to access. Butterfly weed provides some height and brings in bigger butterflies in the swallowtail family and the monarchs.

blanket flower with butterfly weed
Milkweed plants not only host monarch butterflies but, milkweed tussock moths, milkweed bug and aphids, an important food source for syrphid fly larva and lady beetles. (Read: Got Milkweed

Another delightful combination is the pastel colors of yarrow, echinacea and  buttonbush. In addition to the vibrant color, this combo offers texture. The shape of the cones on the echinacea are echoed in button bush flowers. These blooms attract an array of bees and butterflies.

Cephalanthus occidentalis, Echinacea, Achillea

If you have the right conditions (moist to wet/sunny) Cephalanthus occidentalis is essential for a pollinator garden. (Read more: Bodacious Button Bush).

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoying Buttonbush blooms

The tall and bold rudbeckia maxima is a ravishing addition to a wildflower garden, naturalized area or cottage garden. The big blue basal leaves are attractive unto themselves but when the giant stalks rise up and tower over the surrounding plants, in my case monarda, goldenrod 'fireworks' and Georgia aster, it becomes a real conversation piece. The tall cones attract butterflies and later in the autumn, goldfinches will land on the tall stalks to forage seeds.

Rudbeckia maxima

This dramatic coneflower is in a class of its own and in my opinion not seen in gardens enough. Wouldn't they make lovely cut flowers too! But maybe its most endearing feature is that deer don't like them.

the developing blooms of Rudbeckia maxima

Vines are a fabulous way to get even more gardening real estate by growing your garden vertically. Tubular blooms like this clematis texensis are enjoyed by our hummingbirds while adding striking color and shape to move your eye upward.

Clematis texensis 'Princess Diana'
Angularfruit milkvine is a high climbing vine in the milkweed family. I picked this plant up a few years ago at our State Botanical Garden's native plant sale. Like other plants in the milkweed family, this is host to the monarch butterfly caterpillars, milkweed tussock moth caterpillars and nymphs of the milkweed bug.

Angularfruit milkvine

It grows in well drained soil in an open woodland setting. The primary visitors are flies and butterflies who prefer to visit rotting fruit, tree sap and manure such as the Red Spotted Purple, Red Admiral, Viceroy and Question Mark. But don't let this deter you, the attractive star shaped blooms and heart shaped leaves are an attractive addition to a garden.

star shaped blooms of Angularfruit milkvine

Passiflora incarnata is a staple vine in our garden. It serves as host plant for the Gulf and Variegated Fritillary butterflies. The showy flowers provide nectar for the adult butterflies but are also adored by carpenter bees, who often get so drunk on the nectar they roll off the blooms.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly on passiflora incarnta bloom

Our meadow garden is a pollinator haven. Not only do all the plants here provide nectar sources for a variety of native pollinators, they also help to restore an area of the garden that was dry exposed clay.

Rudbeckia hirta

Blooming in June is Rudbeckia hirta, Hyssop, Partridge Pea, Bergamot, Yellow Coneflower and Switch Grass. The lavendar blooms of Bergamot are faithfully visited by our hummingbirds, day flying moths and bees. Switch grass has quickly become a favorite of mine. It is an attractive companion to most wildflowers and its stiff stems standup well, especially in winter, and provide a dense cover for wildlife.

Bergamot with Switch Grass
Prairie Gayfeather has been difficult to establish in our garden because the voles like to feed on the corms. So far this year a few plants have survived, surprisingly since the voles have eaten so many other plants in our garden. The blooms on this blazing star have a host of visitors including long-tongued bees, bee flies, diurnal moths and a variety of butterflies including swallowtails, painted ladies and skippers.

Liatris spicata
Long-tongued bees are the primary visitor to the Partridge Pea, including bumblebees, leaf cutting bees and long horned bees. The bumblebees are particularly amusing to watch as they circle around inside the bloom collecting pollen and nectar.

bumblebee visiting Partridge Pea
In late summer we welcome the Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, who lays her eggs on partridge pea making this plant an all around winner by providing nectar for pollinators, seeds for birds, leaves for caterpillars and effective erosion control and soil fertility.

Wildflower meadow with partridge pea &  rudbeckia
Pollinators are what hold our gardens together. Because let's face it, without them our blooms wouldn't go to seed and create the plant communities we love. Seed and fruit loving birds would go hungry. Nesting birds would loose their primary food source for their babies and our kitchen gardens would be barren. Here at Southern Meadows, we celebrate pollinators everyday because they are the keystone to our thriving ecosystem. We just can't live without them!